Food waste is a big problem. The UN has estimated a third of food produced is thrown away each year. When it goes into a recycling bin we might feel a vague sense of satisfaction that “at least it’s being recycled” but that hides the underlying problem: we buy too much food.
The issue isn’t only the waste that reaches our composting centres and landfill. The discarded food had to be grown, using additional fertilisers, water and land. It has to be harvested, stored, shipped, stored again, sent to its final destination where it’s stored and displayed. If the food is processed, somewhere along this simplified chain of events it gets turned into pies, ready meals, put into cans and hidden under plastic wraps. All this for something that is bought to be thrown away.
The French solution: target supermarkets
Banning supermarkets from throwing away waste food is a policy that has worked well in France. Supermarkets have been required to donate food to charities or recycle it as animal feed for more than a year. Although hailed as a success, it hasn’t had as big an impact as first appears. The supermarkets targeted accounted for about 10 per cent of France’s annual food waste, and in some quarters donating discarded food to food banks has been a positive for their social standing.
Tackling food left on shelves still does little to deal with what gets left in the fridge. About a third of food waste comes direct from consumers and a large part of it is still edible fruit and vegetables. “Best before dates” are often pointed at as a reason for this, with consumers seeing the date printed on the plastic packet as a cut-off after which it is no longer edible. In reality this date is little more than a guide for merchandising teams to know how long something has left on a shelf.
We need to play our part
Solving our food waste problem may require more effort on our part as consumers. We may need to adjust our behaviours a little to reduce both what we send to landfill, and the money we pay for it. Buying loose vegetables, single portions of meat or fish from a butcher and shopping more often are positive steps that add little effort. Keeping track of what’s in the fridge and larder means you’re less likely to buy something you already have, another source of waste. Cooking fresh meals and being willing to experiment with ingredients can also find new uses for food that might otherwise be thrown away.
Targeting supermarkets and restaurants is a positive step to reducing waste, but we as consumers need to accept our role. Reducing what we buy to what we need, being more flexible and more aware of our food should help us as individuals lower our demand on the supply chain.
Image by Ross Hall